Monday, January 30, 2012

99 Killed Sunday as Syria Rebels Say Clashes Inching Closer to Capital

Fierce clashes approached the Syrian capital on Sunday as fresh violence across the country killed at least 59 civilians, 31 regime troops and nine army deserters, according to activists.

Regime forces fired heavy artillery and mortar rounds against the Damascus suburbs of Douma, Saqba, Irbin and Hamouriyeh and were locked in close battle with rebel fighters emboldened by a fresh wave of desertions, activists said.

Meanwhile, the Local Coordination Committees, the main activist group spurring protests on the ground, said security forces killed 17 people in Damascus and its suburbs Kfarbatna, Saqba, Hamouriyeh, Rankous, Zabadani and Harasta.

Regime troops also shot dead 19 people in the central opposition bastion Homs, four people in the flashpoint central province of Hama, six in the restive northwestern province of Idlib, four in the southern province of Daraa, the cradle of the revolt, and one in the eastern oil hub of Deir al-Zour, the LCC said.

For its part, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 26 regime soldiers, five other members of the security forces and nine army deserters were also among those killed as the regime cracked down on protesters and rebels.

The watchdog said the regime soldiers were killed in three separate attacks in the Idlib and Damascus regions.

The Observatory said earlier that 10 members of the military were killed when their convoy was attacked in Jebel al-Zuwiya in the northwest, and the official SANA news agency said "an armed terrorist group" killed six others near Damascus.

"The more the regime uses the army, the more soldiers defect," Ahmed al-Khatib, a local rebel council member on the Damascus outskirts, told Agence France Presse.

A spokesman for the rebel Free Syrian Army, which boasts 40,000 men and whose leadership is in Turkey, said that the fighting came a day after "a large wave of defections," with 50 officers and soldiers turning their back on Assad.

In a "steady progression of fighting towards the capital," spokesman Maher Nueimi said deserters were clashing with army regulars only eight kilometers from Damascus.

The regime, in turn, has launched "an unprecedented offensive in the past 24 hours, using heavy artillery" against villages in Damascus and Hama province of central Syria, Nueimi said.

Other rebel spokesmen reported heavy fighting in Rankous, 45 kilometers from Damascus, and of heightened tension in Hama, further to the north.

Rankous was "besieged for the past five days and is being randomly shelled since dawn by tanks and artillery rounds," rebel Abu Ali al-Rankousi told AFP by telephone.

In Hama, pro-regime snipers were deployed on the rooftops, according to activists, with security forces leaving "bodies of dead people with their hands tied behind their backs" on the streets across several neighborhoods.

It was this latest surge in violence that pushed the Arab League to suspend its mission to Syria in a surprise move on Saturday.

U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon said Sunday that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must end the killings.

"First and foremost, he must stop immediately the bloodshed," Ban told reporters. "The Syrian leadership should take a decisive action at this time to stop this violence. All the violence must stop."

But Syrian Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar said the authorities were determined to "cleanse" the country and restore order.

"The security forces are determined to carry on the struggle to cleanse Syria of renegades and outlaws ... to restore safety and security," SANA quoted Shaar as saying.

At least 5,400 people have been killed in the regime’s crackdown on dissent since March, according to the United Nations.

The regime does not recognize the scale of the protest movement that erupted in mid-March, insisting it is fighting "terrorist groups" seeking to sow chaos as part of a foreign-hatched conspiracy.



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